The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XVII

Nick’s little visit was to terminate immediately after luncheon the following day: much as the old man enjoyed his being there he wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for more of his time now that it had such great public uses. He liked infinitely better that his young friend should be occupied with parliamentary work than only occupied in talking it over with him. Talking it over, however, was the next best thing, as on the morrow, after breakfast, Mr. Carteret showed Nick he considered. They sat in the garden, the morning being warm, and the old man had a table beside him covered with the letters and newspapers the post had poured forth. He was proud of his correspondence, which was altogether on public affairs, and proud in a manner of the fact that he now dictated almost everything. That had more in it of the statesman in retirement, a character indeed not consciously assumed by Mr. Carteret, but always tacitly attributed to him by Nick, who took it rather from the pictorial point of view — remembering on each occasion only afterwards that though he was in retirement he had not exactly been a statesman. A young man, a very sharp, handy young man, came every morning at ten o’clock and wrote for him till luncheon. The young man had a holiday today in honour of Nick’s visit — a fact the mention of which led Nick to make some not particularly sincere speech about his being ready to write anything if Mr. Carteret were at all pressed.

“Ah but your own budget — what will become of that?” the old gentleman objected, glancing at Nick’s pockets as if rather surprised not to see them stuffed out with documents in split envelopes. His visitor had to confess that he had not directed his letters to meet him at Beauclere: he should find them in town that afternoon. This led to a little homily from Mr. Carteret which made him feel quite guilty; there was such an implication of neglected duty in the way the old man said, “You won’t do them justice — you won’t do them justice.” He talked for ten minutes, in his rich, simple, urbane way, about the fatal consequences of getting behind. It was his favourite doctrine that one should always be a little before, and his own eminently regular respiration seemed to illustrate the idea. A man was certainly before who had so much in his rear.

This led to the bestowal of a good deal of general advice on the mistakes to avoid at the beginning of a parliamentary career — as to which Mr. Carteret spoke with the experience of one who had sat for fifty years in the House of Commons. Nick was amused, but also mystified and even a little irritated, by his talk: it was founded on the idea of observation and yet our young man couldn’t at all regard him as an observer. “He doesn’t observe me,” he said to himself; “if he did he would see, he wouldn’t think ——!” The end of this private cogitation was a vague impatience of all the things his venerable host took for granted. He didn’t see any of the things Nick saw. Some of these latter were the light touches the summer morning scattered through the sweet old garden. The time passed there a good deal as if it were sitting still with a plaid under its feet while Mr. Carteret distilled a little more of the wisdom he had laid up in his fifty years. This immense term had something fabulous and monstrous for Nick, who wondered whether it were the sort of thing his companion supposed he had gone in for. It was not strange Mr. Carteret should be different; he might originally have been more — well, to himself Nick was not obliged to phrase it: what our young man meant was more of what it was perceptible to him that his old friend was not. Should even he, Nick, be like that at the end of fifty years? What Mr. Carteret was so good as to expect for him was that he should be much more distinguished; and wouldn’t this exactly mean much more like that? Of course Nick heard some things he had heard before; as for instance the circumstances that had originally led the old man to settle at Beauclere. He had been returned for that borough — it was his second seat — in years far remote, and had come to live there because he then had a conscientious conviction, modified indeed by later experience, that a member should be constantly resident. He spoke of this now, smiling rosily, as he might have spoken of some wild aberration of his youth; yet he called Nick’s attention to the fact that he still so far clung to his conviction as to hold — though of what might be urged on the other side he was perfectly aware — that a representative should at least be as resident as possible. This gave Nick an opening for something that had been on and off his lips all the morning.

“According to that I ought to take up my abode at Harsh.”

“In the measure of the convenient I shouldn’t be sorry to see you do it.”

“It ought to be rather convenient,” Nick largely smiled. “I’ve got a piece of news for you which I’ve kept, as one keeps that sort of thing — for it’s very good — till the last.” He waited a little to see if Mr. Carteret would guess, and at first thought nothing would come of this. But after resting his young-looking eyes on him for a moment the old man said:

“I should indeed be very happy to hear that you’ve arranged to take a wife.”

“Mrs. Dallow has been so good as to say she’ll marry me,” Nick returned.

“That’s very suitable. I should think it would answer.”

“It’s very jolly,” said Nick. It was well Mr. Carteret was not what his guest called observant, or he might have found a lower pitch in the sound of this sentence than in the sense.

“Your dear father would have liked it.”

“So my mother says.”

“And she must be delighted.”

“Mrs. Dallow, do you mean?” Nick asked.

“I was thinking of your mother. But I don’t exclude the charming lady. I remember her as a little girl. I must have seen her at Windrush. Now I understand the fine spirit with which she threw herself into your canvass.”

“It was her they elected,” said Nick.

“I don’t know,” his host went on, “that I’ve ever been an enthusiast for political women, but there’s no doubt that in approaching the mass of electors a graceful, affable manner, the manner of the real English lady, is a force not to be despised.”

“Julia’s a real English lady and at the same time a very political woman,” Nick remarked.

“Isn’t it rather in the family? I remember once going to see her mother in town and finding the leaders of both parties sitting with her.”

“My principal friend, of the others, is her brother Peter. I don’t think he troubles himself much about that sort of thing,” said Nick.

“What does he trouble himself about?” Mr. Carteret asked with a certain gravity.

“He’s in the diplomatic service; he’s a secretary in Paris.”

“That may be serious,” said the old man.

“He takes a great interest in the theatre. I suppose you’ll say that may be serious too,” Nick laughed.

“Oh!”— and Mr. Carteret looked as if he scarcely understood. Then he continued; “Well, it can’t hurt you.”

“It can’t hurt me?”

“If Mrs. Dallow takes an interest in your interests.”

“When a man’s in my situation he feels as if nothing could hurt him.”

“I’m very glad you’re happy,” said Mr. Carteret. He rested his mild eyes on our young man, who had a sense of seeing in them for a moment the faint ghost of an old story, the last strange flicker, as from cold ashes, of a flame that had become the memory of a memory. This glimmer of wonder and envy, the revelation of a life intensely celibate, was for an instant infinitely touching. Nick had harboured a theory, suggested by a vague allusion from his father, who had been discreet, that their benevolent friend had had in his youth an unhappy love-affair which had led him to forswear for ever the commerce of woman. What remained in him of conscious renunciation gave a throb as he looked at his bright companion, who proposed to take the matter so much the other way. “It’s good to marry and I think it’s right. I’ve not done right, I know that. If she’s a good woman it’s the best thing,” Mr. Carteret went on. “It’s what I’ve been hoping for you. Sometimes I’ve thought of speaking to you.”

“She’s a very good woman,” said Nick.

“And I hope she’s not poor.” Mr. Carteret spoke exactly with the same blandness.

“No indeed, she’s rich. Her husband, whom I knew and liked, left her a large fortune.”

“And on what terms does she enjoy it?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” said Nick.

Mr. Carteret considered. “I see. It doesn’t concern you. It needn’t concern you,” he added in a moment.

Nick thought of his mother at this, but he returned: “I daresay she can do what she likes with her money.”

“So can I, my dear young friend,” said Mr. Carteret.

Nick tried not to look conscious, for he felt a significance in the old man’s face. He turned his own everywhere but toward it, thinking again of his mother. “That must be very pleasant, if one has any.”

“I wish you had a little more.”

“I don’t particularly care,” said Nick.

“Your marriage will assist you; you can’t help that,” Mr. Carteret declared. “But I should like you to be under obligations not quite so heavy.”

“Oh I’m so obliged to her for caring for me ——!”

“That the rest doesn’t count? Certainly it’s nice of her to like you. But why shouldn’t she? Other people do.”

“Some of them make me feel as if I abused it,” said Nick, looking at his host. “That is, they don’t make me, but I feel it,” he corrected.

“I’ve no son “— and Mr. Carteret spoke as if his companion mightn’t have been sure. “Shan’t you be very kind to her?” he pursued. “You’ll gratify her ambition.”

“Oh she thinks me cleverer than I am.”

“That’s because she’s in love,” the old gentleman hinted as if this were very subtle. “However, you must be as clever as we think you. If you don’t prove so ——!” And he paused with his folded hands.

“Well, if I don’t?” asked Nick.

“Oh it won’t do — it won’t do,” said Mr. Carteret in a tone his companion was destined to remember afterwards. “I say I’ve no son,” he continued; “but if I had had one he should have risen high.”

“It’s well for me such a person doesn’t exist. I shouldn’t easily have found a wife.”

“He would have gone to the altar with a little money in his pocket.”

“That would have been the least of his advantages, sir,” Nick declared.

“When are you to be married?” Mr. Carteret asked.

“Ah that’s the question. Julia won’t yet say.”

“Well,” said the old man without the least flourish, “you may consider that when it comes off I’ll make you a settlement.”

“I feel your kindness more than I can express,” Nick replied; “but that will probably be the moment when I shall be least conscious of wanting anything.”

“You’ll appreciate it later — you’ll appreciate it very soon. I shall like you to appreciate it,” Mr. Carteret went on as if he had a just vision of the way a young man of a proper spirit should feel. Then he added; “Your father would have liked you to appreciate it.”

“Poor father!” Nick exclaimed vaguely, rather embarrassed, reflecting on the oddity of a position in which the ground for holding up his head as the husband of a rich woman would be that he had accepted a present of money from another source. It was plain he was not fated to go in for independence; the most that he could treat himself to would be dependence that was duly grateful “How much do you expect of me?” he inquired with a grave face.

“Well, Nicholas, only what your father did. He so often spoke of you, I remember, at the last, just after you had been with him alone — you know I saw him then. He was greatly moved by his interview with you, and so was I by what he told me of it. He said he should live on in you — he should work in you. It has always given me a special feeling, if I may use the expression, about you.”

“The feelings are indeed not usual, dear Mr. Carteret, which take so munificent a form. But you do — oh you do — expect too much,” Nick brought himself to say.

“I expect you to repay me!” the old man returned gaily. “As for the form, I have it in my mind.”

“The form of repayment?”

“The form of repayment!”

“Ah don’t talk of that now,” said Nick, “for, you see, nothing else is settled. No one has been told except my mother. She has only consented to my telling you.”

“Lady Agnes, do you mean?”

“Ah no; dear mother would like to publish it on the house-tops. She’s so glad — she wants us to have it over tomorrow. But Julia herself,” Nick explained, “wishes to wait. Therefore kindly mention it for the present to no one.”

“My dear boy, there’s at this rate nothing to mention! What does Julia want to wait for?”

“Till I like her better — that’s what she says.”

“It’s the way to make you like her worse,” Mr. Carteret knowingly declared. “Hasn’t she your affection?”

“So much so that her delay makes me exceedingly unhappy.”

Mr. Carteret looked at his young friend as if he didn’t strike him as quite wretched; but he put the question: “Then what more does she want?” Nick laughed out at this, though perceiving his host hadn’t meant it as an epigram; while the latter resumed: “I don’t understand. You’re engaged or you’re not engaged.”

“She is, but I’m not. That’s what she says about it. The trouble is she doesn’t believe in me.”

Mr. Carteret shone with his candour. “Doesn’t she love you then?”

“That’s what I ask her. Her answer is that she loves me only too well. She’s so afraid of being a burden to me that she gives me my freedom till I’ve taken another year to think.”

“I like the way you talk about other years!” Mr. Carteret cried. “You had better do it while I’m here to bless you.”

“She thinks I proposed to her because she got me in for Harsh,” said Nick.

“Well, I’m sure it would be a very pretty return.”

“Ah she doesn’t believe in me,” the young man repeated.

“Then I don’t believe in her.”

“Don’t say that — don’t say that. She’s a very rare creature. But she’s proud, shy, suspicious.”

“Suspicious of what?”

“Of everything. She thinks I’m not persistent.”

“Oh, oh!”— Nick’s host deprecated such freedom.

“She can’t believe I shall arrive at true eminence.”

“A good wife should believe what her husband believes,” said Mr. Carteret.

“Ah unfortunately”— and Nick took the words at a run —“I don’t believe it either.”

Mr. Carteret, who might have been watching an odd physical rush, spoke with a certain dryness. “Your dear father did.”

“I think of that — I think of that,” Nick replied.

“Certainly it will help me. If I say we’re engaged,” he went on, “it’s because I consider it so. She gives me my liberty, but I don’t take it.”

“Does she expect you to take back your word?”

“That’s what I ask her. She never will. Therefore we’re as good as tied.”

“I don’t like it,” said Mr. Carteret after a moment. “I don’t like ambiguous, uncertain situations. They please me much better when they’re definite and clear.” The retreat of expression had been sounded in his face — the aspect it wore when he wished not to be encouraging. But after an instant he added in a tone more personal: “Don’t disappoint me, dear boy.”

“Ah not willingly!” his visitor protested.

“I’ve told you what I should like to do for you. See that the conditions come about promptly in which I may, do it. Are you sure you do everything to satisfy Mrs. Dallow?” Mr. Carteret continued.

“I think I’m very nice to her,” Nick declared. “But she’s so ambitious. Frankly speaking, it’s a pity for her that she likes me.”

“She can’t help that!” the old man charmingly said.

“Possibly. But isn’t it a reason for taking me as I am? What she wants to do is to take me as I may be a year hence.”

“I don’t understand — since you tell me that even then she won’t take back her word,” said Mr. Carteret.

“If she doesn’t marry me I think she’ll never marry again at all.”

“What then does she gain by delay?”

“Simply this, as I make it out,” said Nick —“that she’ll feel she has been very magnanimous. She won’t have to reproach herself with not having given me a chance to change.”

“To change? What does she think you liable to do?”

Nick had a pause. “I don’t know!” he then said — not at all candidly.

“Everything has altered: young people in my day looked at these questions more naturally,” Mr. Carteret observed. “A woman in love has no need to be magnanimous. If she plays too fair she isn’t in love,” he added shrewdly.

“Oh, Julia’s safe — she’s safe,” Nick smiled.

“If it were a question between you and another gentleman one might comprehend. But what does it mean, between you and nothing?”

“I’m much obliged to you, sir,” Nick returned. “The trouble is that she doesn’t know what she has got hold of.”

“Ah, if you can’t make it clear to her!”— and his friend showed the note of impatience.

“I’m such a humbug,” said the young man. And while his companion stared he continued: “I deceive people without in the least intending it.”

“What on earth do you mean? Are you deceiving me?”

“I don’t know — it depends on what you think.”

“I think you’re flighty,” said Mr. Carteret, with the nearest approach to sternness Nick had ever observed in him. “I never thought so before.”

“Forgive me; it’s all right. I’m not frivolous; that I promise you I’m not.”

“You have deceived me if you are.”

“It’s all right,” Nick stammered with a blush.

“Remember your name — carry it high.”

“I will — as high as possible.”

“You’ve no excuse. Don’t tell me, after your speeches at Harsh!” Nick was on the point of declaring again that he was a humbug, so vivid was his inner sense of what he thought of his factitious public utterances, which had the cursed property of creating dreadful responsibilities and importunate credulities for him. If he was “clever” (ah the idiotic “clever”!) what fools many other people were! He repressed his impulse and Mr. Carteret pursued. “If, as you express it, Mrs. Dallow doesn’t know what she has got hold of, won’t it clear the matter up a little by informing her that the day before your marriage is definitely settled to take place you’ll come into something comfortable?”

A quick vision of what Mr. Carteret would be likely to regard as something comfortable flitted before Nick, but it didn’t prevent his replying: “Oh I’m afraid that won’t do any good. It would make her like you better, but it wouldn’t make her like me. I’m afraid she won’t care for any benefit that comes to me from another hand than hers. Her affection’s a very jealous sentiment.”

“It’s a very peculiar one!” sighed Mr. Carteret. “Mine’s a jealous sentiment too. However, if she takes it that way don’t tell her.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as she comes round,” said Nick.

“And you’ll tell your mother,” Mr. Carteret returned. “I shall like her to know.”

“It will be delightful news to her. But she’s keen enough already.”

“I know that. I may mention now that she has written to me,” the old man added.

“So I suspected.”

“We’ve — a — corresponded on the subject,” Mr. Carteret continued to confess. “My view of the advantageous character of such an alliance has entirely coincided with hers.”

“It was very good-natured of you then to leave me to speak first,” said Nick.

“I should have been disappointed if you hadn’t. I don’t like all you’ve told me. But don’t disappoint me now.”

“Dear Mr. Carteret!” Nick vaguely and richly sounded.

“I won’t disappoint you,” that gentleman went on with a finer point while he looked at his big old-fashioned watch.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38